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Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. Why? Americans do not get enough exercise, have generally unhealthy diets, and have high levels of stress. Plus, we tend to focus more on treating our health problems when they’ve become serious and symptomatic, rather than focusing on preventing them from occurring in the first place.


Let’s face it: none of us has a perfect track record when it comes to making decisions that affect our health positively. But it doesn’t help to beat ourselves up about the past; we all have the power to change our habits going forward. Here are five habits you need to change in the future to improve your heart health and general wellbeing:


  1. Exercise more

You don’t have to be a gym rat to get heart healthy. There are plenty of ways to get exercise without having to purchase a gym membership or expensive workout equipment for your home. Some great options are walking, running, bicycling, hiking, swimming, or even Zumba. And if you’re having trouble getting motivated, try a fitness app. There are countless apps available that make it easier to stay active and get healthy by setting realistic goals, tracking your progress, and monitoring your heart rate.


Another great way to start exercising more is to substitute some of the trips you would normally make in a car for walking or riding a bike. For example, if you work in a big city, on nice days, skip the subway ride and walk instead (just make sure you bring comfortable shoes!). Or, if you’re going to the nearby drugstore for a couple small items, don’t drive. Walk or take the bicycle.  And you don’t always need to drive in circles forever to find the perfect closest parking spot- instead, make it a point to deliberately choose one of the farthest wherever you shop- the extra steps add up.


No matter what form of exercise you choose, whether you prefer to workout at the gym, on the hiking trails, or elsewhere, the important thing is that you get up and move!


  1. Clean up your diet

Changing your diet is one of the most important things you can do to improve your health. One of the reasons Americans have such a high rate of heart disease is our tendency to eat foods that are high in saturated fats and processed carbohydrates. It seems like every other commercial is advertising some tempting but unhealthy fast food or snack, while fast food joints are practically around every corner. If you’re serious about your heart health, start by cutting out all fast food and processed sugary snacks and drinks. At most, reserve these items for rare occasions.  Remember, nothing is healthier than water, even sugar-laden energy drinks, and it is free and has zero calories!!


So what should you eat? As a general rule, eat more fruits (especially berries- blueberries are very high in anti-oxidants) and veggies (dark leafy greens are the most nutritious). Snack healthy with some nuts (hazelnuts, almonds, and brazil nuts are some of the best- raw and unsalted, of course) and seeds, and control your portions to manage your weight. Try some of these great heart-healthy recipes.


  1. Manage your stress

Every day, scientists are learning about new ways stress affects the body. In short, stress can affect every aspect of our health and can have a significant impact on our chances of having a heart attack or stroke. Stress increases cortisol levels, and important hormone, which raises blood pressure and heart rate, increases inflammation in the blood, and makes the blood more prone to clotting. So what are some of the best ways to beat stress? For starters, make sure you get enough sleep. Sleep is necessary for recharging both your body and mind. Also, try yoga or meditation; both have been proven extremely effective for reducing stress and improving one’s general health and wellbeing. Finally, when stress becomes overwhelming, take a break and practice some simple breathing exercises- just focusing on each deep breath in a quiet place can immediately lower blood pressure and heart rate and also will distract you from whatever was stressing you in the first place.


  1. Quit smoking!

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, smoking increases an individual’s risk of heart disease by approximately 2 to 4 times. It’s never too late to quit. When you decide you’re ready to quit, make sure you have a strong support system, keep your goal in sight, and if necessary, consult with a doctor to help in determining whether a smoking cessation medication (over-the-counter or prescription) is right for you.  Smoking has so many immediate and long-term adverse effects on the heart and circulation, never mind cancer risk that they are too numerous to mention here.  Think of all the damage you are doing next time you are paying your $10.00 for the privilege, or when you are taking your next puff!  Many, many people have successfully ended this awful addiction, and YOU CAN TOO.


Don’t smoke? Good. Don’t start, and avoid secondhand smoking situations as much as possible, as secondhand smoke also increases one’s risk of heart disease.


  1. Visit a doctor that practices Preventive Cardiology (even when you’re not sick)

When it comes to your health, education and prevention are key. Unfortunately, many high quality doctors are doing so-called “Preventive” examinations that really have not changed in decades, and remain designed to pick up disease at only its latest stages.  A lot of the testing is done to see whether you fit into a group of similar patients with similar risks to determine if you need treatment.  It is a known fact that looking simply at a patient’s traditional cardiovascular risk factors will misidentify 50%-75% of patients’ true risk.  A true PREVENTIVE exam looks at you as an individual, for the first and earliest signs of cardiovascular disease, not just potential markers such as elevated cholesterol.  Advanced testing, some of which is available nowhere else in the Tristate area, enables centers such as Preventive Cardiology of New York to much more accurately and precisely determine YOUR risk, not whether you fit into a group of patients who have had similar risk factors.


Ready to assess your true cardiovascular risk and health status, and begin living a more heart-healthy life? If you’re in the New York City area, request an appointment with Dr. Lee Marcus today!